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Do people live in Antarctica?

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Antarctica does not have a permanent human population. The continent has never had an indigenous human population, largely due to its inhospitable climate and isolation from the rest of the world. In fact, Antarctica was not even discovered by humans until the 19e century. Since then, many explorers and scientists have traveled to the frozen continent, although none of these people made it their permanent home. Today, the only humans who actually live on the continent are scientists and guides dedicated to the study, exploration and preservation of the continent. Antarctica is also a popular tourist destination. It is important to note, however, that with the ongoing climate change, there may very well come a time when a permanent and self-sustaining human habitation of the ice-covered continent will be possible.

Antarctic environment

Around 40 to 50 million years ago, temperatures across Antarctica were as high as 17 degrees Celsius. So at one time the continent was habitable. In fact, scientists have discovered fossils indicating that Antarctica was once covered in forests and inhabited by dinosaurs. Therefore, if humans had existed 40 to 50 million years ago, they could have lived on the continent.

Kayakers watch whales off the coast of Antarctica.

Today, however, Antarctica is the coldest, driest, and windiest place on Earth, making it inhospitable to humans, let alone most other life forms. Temperatures on the mainland can drop to -90 degrees Celsius in winter. During the summer, the mercury rises to a maximum of 5 degrees Celsius. Besides the cold, the wind also contributes to the inhospitable climate of Antarctica. In fact, the wind speed on the continent can reach 327 km / h, which is much faster than the wind speed of most tropical cyclones. Antarctica is also sorely lacking in precipitation. Indeed, the continent receives as little as 20mm of precipitation each year, which is very comparable to the hot deserts of the world. In fact, Antarctica itself is classified as a desert even though it is also home to 70% of the world’s fresh water.

antarctic mountains
Mountains cover much of Antarctica.

The Antarctic terrain also makes it inhospitable. The continent encompasses an area of ​​14.2 million km², which is more than enough territory to theoretically support a large human population, until 98% of it is considered to be covered in ice. . On average, this ice is 1.6 km thick, but can reach 4.5 km thick. Antarctica is also very isolated from the rest of the world. In the early days of humanity, people could cross continents using land bridges, this is how humans managed to populate all the continents of the world – except Antarctica, that is. to say. Antarctica has never had any land bridges connecting it to other continents and has always been isolated by the vast Southern Ocean that surrounds it. It is therefore not surprising that humans did not arrive on the continent until the 19e century.

Humans discover Antarctica

Antarctic scientists
Scientists at the Polarstern research icebreaker are measuring scientific parameters in the Weddell Sea in Antarctica. Editorial credit: I. Noyan Yilmaz / Shutterstock.com

Since the days of ancient Greece, humans had speculated that there was a continent in the far south of the world. But confirmation of the existence of Antarctica did not come until 1820, when members of a Russian expedition saw it for the first time. At the beginning of the 20e century, a race began to determine who would be the first to reach the South Pole. The first attempt was led by a British explorer named Robert Falcon Scott, who sailed to Antarctica in 1901 and attempted to reach the South Pole in 1902, although he was forced to retreat before he could reach it. Six years later, another British explorer, Ernest Henry Shackleton, attempted to reach the South Pole, approaching within 180 km of it before having to withdraw. It was not until 1911 that Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen became the first person to reach the South Pole, hoisting the Norwegian flag there on December 14, 1911. Further expeditions were undertaken over the following decades. In 1935, the Norwegian Caroline Mikkelsen became the first woman to set foot in Antarctica. In 1947, the United States sent the largest expedition ever to the continent, taking photographs that were used to map it.

The extent of human habitation in Antarctica

Antarctic research station
Base Orcadas Research Station, an Argentinian research station on Laurie Island, South Orkney Islands, Antarctica. Editorial credit: Michelle Sole / Shutterstock.com

In the late 1950s, several countries began to establish research stations in Antarctica. Today, there are 66 national research bases on the continent. These research bases vary in size, accommodating up to 1,300 people to six. Most scientists and support staff spend three to six months in Antarctica, although some stay up to 15 months. Travel to and from the mainland can only be done during the summer, as widespread pack ice, high winds and poor visibility that occur during winter make travel extremely risky. In fact, more than half of the research stations in Antarctica close during the winter.

Antarctic research
Quad researchers explore a glacier in Antarctica.

Apart from researchers and their support staff, the only other people to have set foot in Antarctica are Antarctic guides and tourists. Guides can be expedition guides, mountaineering guides, or field guides, who spend much of their time on or near the mainland. Tourists have been visiting Antarctica since the 1950s. About 170,000 people visit the continent each year, most of whom come from English-speaking countries, particularly the United States, although there is an increasing number of Chinese tourists visiting the continent. continent, in addition to people from non-English speaking parts of Europe. .

Cruise ships in Antarctica
A cruise ship carrying passengers to Antarctica.

It is conceivable that in the future ordinary people could live in Antarctica. Climate change is rapidly warming the continent. In fact, the Antarctic Peninsula, the part of the continent closest to its neighbor, South America, is one of the fastest warming places on Earth. Over the past 50 years, the temperature on the peninsula has risen an average of 3 degrees Celsius. If climate change continues, it is possible that Antarctica may be home to a permanent human population for the next two centuries. It might even be possible for humans to grow their own food on the continent, as climate change is not only causing temperatures to rise, but precipitation as well. Indeed, if humans continue to warm the planet, there could come a time when temperatures on the Antarctic coast could rise up to 10 degrees Celsius, allowing for a legitimate growing season and even grazing animals.


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